Reclaiming Our Natural Wellbeing – Part 1
I wrote this post before I discovered the work of Iain McGilchrist on ‘the divided brain’, please forgive my clumsiness and over-simplification (see notes below for further reading).
This pair of posts draws on some (very) ancient wisdom that could be so valuable in our modern times – to help us re-connect to a kind of wellbeing that we’ve lost touch with.
I’ve become fascinated recently by how ancient people lived. I don’t just mean going back a couple of thousand years. I mean the hunter-gatherer culture that goes back tens to hundreds of thousands of years. Many of the books I’ve read recently which appear to be about different areas – parenting, education, meditation and psychology – all seem to point to the same thing.
Which is that with the birth of agriculture, we began to lose our sense of connection – to the earth, to ourselves, to each other, and to our ‘right brain’ that mediates these connections so powerfully.
Anthropologists suggest that in hunter-gatherer cultures, people experienced much higher wellbeing that we do in modern culture. I’m not ignoring that certain hardships may also have been more prevalent in those environments, or at least that some of the advantages of modern life weren’t available. I’m not wishing to romanticise their experience. But a few things have really got me questioning the received wisdom of our own times. What can we learn from those ancient people?
To start answering that question, I’m going to first mention more contemporary idea. I first stumbled across the idea of the ‘right brain’ when I was beginning to understand my son’s style of learning, which is very grounded in bodily experience. The basic premise of the theory is that we have 2 brain hemispheres, left and right, and that some of us tend to use one side more than the other*. The left side is associated with logic, language, planning, analysing and step-by-step learning. The right side is associated with creativity, intuition, imagination, spatial abilities and ‘bigger picture’ learning. This is a huge simplification – there are also other attributes for each side, and we tend to use both sides in combination.
Recent science has begun to suggest that the right ‘brain’ is actually the right hemisphere of the brain plus the whole of the body (not just one side). It’s all linked up. The vagus nerve that links the gut to the brain figures somewhere in here – you’ll have heard of ‘gut instinct’. Experts on the nervous system point out that we have more nerve fibres that pass information from from the body to the brain, than the other way round. This information has certainly made me reevaluate the importance of the information that our sensitive bodies can pick up.
In modern culture, we’re encouraged to rely heavily on our left brain skills, and so we disconnect somewhat with the right brain/body. We literally become disembodied, and lose the ‘body wisdom’ that in ancient cultures would have equated success in the world of hunter-gathering. Stressful experiences can lead us to dis-connect further from the body: to escape uncomfortable feelings, we may seek refuge in numbness or mental strategies such as explanations or evaluations.
You might think that right-brain skills aren’t as relevant in our world as they might have been to our ancestors. But in withdrawing into the left-brain, we also disconnect from the emotional energies that are associated with the right brain/body. When we disconnect from emotional parts of ourselves (even the ones we might not like, such as vulnerability, fear or anger), we feel less whole and our wellbeing gets compromised.
This is where practices like mindfulness, self-kindness and meditation can help us to re-connect with the lost parts of ourselves, and rediscover wholeness and greater ease of being. In the second part of this blog, I suggest some ways that our experience could be enriched by greater connection to our right brain/body, and also some thoughts about how to actually make that happen.
If you want to learn more about the brain hemispheres and modern-day disconnection (and see what seems true for you), these authors may be of interest:
Reginald Ray on body-based meditation (his book ‘The Awakening Body’ is a good starting point)
Peter Levine on how the nervous system processes stressful experiences (‘In An Unspoken Voice’ is a very comprehensive book)
Cindy Gaddis on the ‘right-brained’ learning style
Peter Gray on hunter-gatherer cultures (you can find his blogs about education on psychology.com)
Stephen Porges on the Polyvagal Theory (it’s quite an academic book about the nervous system, other people have written summaries)
Updated – In his book The Master and His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist says ‘One of the most common reactions from readers has been… “You told me something that was immediately compelling because I was, at some level, already aware of the patterns you were revealing” ‘. I am one such reader.
*I should say that much of what I’ve written here about left/right brain theory is a gross simplification, and possibly includes my own interpretation of information that could be read a different way. I’m also aware that some studies would appear to disprove some of what I’ve shared. An alternative way to look at those studies is that they confirmed that each hemisphere functions differently, and that perhaps modern culture trains us to rely on the left brain more heavily (to quote psychotherapist Paul Francis). Personally, I’m a strong believer that ‘truth’ is what we find in our own experience. I can appreciate too why there might be resistance to the idea of our bodies being at least as wise as our brains.